27 August 1999 – June 2000
An incredible display from the Powerhouse’s collection of textiles, rugs, costumes, antiquities, ceramics and metalwork from Central Asia.
Beyond the Silk Road: arts of Central Asia
The Silk Road passed through Central Asia, linking China in the east to Iran and the Mediterranean to the west. Connecting pathways went north to Russia and south to India and Afghanistan. Central Asia was inhabited by nomadic and settled peoples whose lives revolved economically around the Silk Road. They also absorbed new ideas and influences through contact with incoming traders, travellers and conquerors. In this exhibition of Central Asian arts, you can see the legacy of the Silk Road in the blending of these foreign ideas with the existing cultural patterns of both nomadic and settled peoples.
The Silk Road: overland trade between east and west
Around 2000 years ago the first official camel caravan, loaded with silks, wended its way westwards from China to the Mediterranean along what came to be known as the Silk Road. Silk, horses, spices and other luxury goods were carried by the great caravans. Few traders travelled the whole distance and goods changed hands often in the oasis town bazaars along the way. Nomads provided fresh horses and camels and acted as guides across the mountain passes and through the sand dunes. Eventually, the Silk Road declined with climatic changes, political pressures and the opening up of maritime trade routes. Today, diesel trucks travel much the same path as the camel caravans of old
Central Asia: the geography
Central Asia consists of a great sweep of mountain and steppe, desert and oasis. In the south is a fertile arc conducive to settlement and agriculture, and in the north great steppelands best suited to nomadism and grazing. Central Asia is divided into a western and an eastern sector by the Altai mountain range. Western Central Asia, with which this exhibition is principally concerned, comprises the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Historically and culturally, Central Asia also includes northeastern Iran, and northern Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Western Central Asia: the people
The people of western Central Asia are a complex ethnic mix, and live by an interactive combination of nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. Majority peoples include the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Uzbeks who are descended from succeeding waves of nomads from Mongolia in the north east. They speak Turkic languages and are celebrated for their remarkable and beautiful textiles. The Tajiks are descended from the original Indo-European inhabitants of the area and speak a Persian language. In addition there are Arabs, whose ancestors brought Islam to Central Asia in the early 700s, together with Russians, and a range of minority peoples.
Eastern Central Asia: the other half of the equation
Beyond the Altai Mountains are the two great regions of Xinjiang and Mongolia. Xinjiang consists of a vast desert, the Taklamakan, ringed with oasis cities, home of the Islamic Uyghurs, another Turkic people, who produced their own distinctive textiles and carried the Silk Road trade on to China. Mongolia and Inner Mongolia are the original homelands of the nomads who swept in waves westwards to Iran (then Persia) or east into China itself. The Buddhist Mongols, like the Kazaks, are nomadic pastoralists, breeding livestock and living in yurts. As with western Central Asia, nomads and oasis dwellers live together in a sometimes uneasy interdependence.
Nomads and oasis dwellers: the interplay of two traditions
Over the centuries in both eastern and western Central Asia two distinct ways of living, nomadic and sedentary, have been practised side by side. The relationship between nomads and townsfolk has always been mutually interdependent, but often troubled, characterised by trading animal products for agricultural products one day, raiding and conquest the next. The distinction between nomads and oasis dwellers has over time become less and less clear. With changing economic and political circumstances, the survival strategies of both groups were prone to overlap and intermingle. Both ways of life are however clearly reflected in their distinctive textiles. In this exhibition you can see some of the typical woollen rugs and trappings produced by nomadic people to support their migratory way of life. You can also see examples of the silk and cotton textiles made and used by oasis dwellers.
Life on the move: the nomads of Central Asia
Central Asia was largely populated by wave after wave of nomadic peoples of Turkic and Mongol descent who moved westwards from Mongolia in search of new pastures. The domestication of the horse was a vital step in this long process. Nomads are dependent on herds of sheep, goats and sometimes cattle for their livelihood. In order to find good grazing for these animals, nomadic groups move seasonally from pasture to pasture, using horses and camels for transport. Traditionally, nomads live in portable felt-covered tents called yurts. A yurt is ornamented inside with a range of highly decorative and functional rugs, partitions, covers and storage bags made of wool from their animals. Nomadic groups interact with the settled populations of surrounding villages and towns, sometimes trading and at other times raiding. Some nomads eventually settle in permanent homes and blend into the local population, adding their own rich imagery to the existing urban design repertoire. Nomadic women have far more freedom and responsibility than is allowed to the women of the towns.
Mainly wool: nomadic rugs and textiles
In addition to their tents, nomadic people require a range of portable furnishings to support their migratory way of life. These offer protection from the desert’s extremes of heat and cold and include rugs, felts, bedding, storage bags and animal trappings. Nomadic textiles are typically made from wool, shorn from the family herd of sheep, goats and camels. These textiles, which are woven, felted and embroidered by women, are often highly decorative. The designs are passed from mother to daughter and tend to reflect group or tribal membership. Textiles which are surplus to family needs are sold in the bazaar, where silks and cottons for special pieces can be bought.
Life in town: the oasis dwellers of Central Asia
The mountains and rivers of Central Asia provided land suitable for settlement and farming. Cotton and silk were primary agricultural products along with grains, fruit and vegetables. Villages, towns and cities, essential staging posts for the Silk Road traffic, grew up around these oases. Culturally, the high point of urban development in Central Asia occurred between 1350 and 1600, during and after the reign of Timur. Islamic religion, art and culture flourished and craft guilds were established. For men, life in town tended to revolve around the bazaar, where trade and business were conducted and from which new trends emerged. Nomads and oasis dwellers met in the bazaar to exchange their wares. For women, who were veiled, life revolved mainly around the domestic sphere.
Silk and cotton: urban weaving and embroidery
In the towns and cities of Central Asia, where people live in permanent mud brick homes, the fabrics were mostly made from silk and cotton, two of the principal agricultural products of the oases. Women, who were traditionally secluded, worked together in domestic contexts to produce superb dowry textiles. These were typically embroidered with floral or cosmological motifs in bright silks. Men wove silk and cotton fabrics in city workshops for everyday use and special occasions. Lengths were also sold to nomadic people for their use. Urban textiles were mainly decorated with ikat dyeing and block printing. The patterns of the finest silks and velvets were Islamic in style, were characteristic of different urban centres and often indicative of the status of the wearer.
Russian Central Asia: from Tsarist rule to Soviet rule
From the 1700s, beginning with Kazakhstan, Tsarist Russia gradually established control in western Central Asia, which became known as Russian Turkestan. In response to Russian pressure, China’s long involvement in eastern Central Asia increased and Xinjiang officially became a province of China in 1884. In the 1920s, following the Russian revolution, five autonomous peoples’ republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan - were established along ethnic lines in western Central Asia and incorporated into the USSR. Their boundaries are much the same today. Tsarist and Soviet rule in Central Asia impacted greatly on local craft production, as Russian factory-produced goods flooded the bazaars, and cotton was planted over huge areas to supply Russian textile factories. Periodically however traditional crafts were greatly encouraged.
Neighbouring Iran: influence and interaction
As one of the great civilisations surrounding western Central Asia, Iran has had a profound influence on the art and culture of the region. Political and cultural interaction between Iran and Central Asia has been continual. The westward passage of silks along the Silk Road was controlled by dynasties that rose and fell in Iran. From around 250 CE, Sassanian dynasty silks also travelled east to China. The influence of Sassanian roundel motifs can still be seen in the gul motifs of Turkmen carpets. Central Asia's Seljuk dynasty ruled Iran in the 1100s. By the 1300s, Iran was part of the unified Mongul empire that stretched from China to the Mediterranean. Under these Timurids, arts and sciences prospered.
Religion in Central Asia: and the impact of Islam
Islam is now the religion of the majority of people in western Central Asia. It was first brought to the area by Arab invaders in the early 700s, and firmly established in the urban centres by Timur and his successors from the 1300s. Prior to this, shamanism was the principal religion, and elements of it still survive, especially among nomadic groups. Buddhism came to the area via the Silk Road in the 6th century, and the followers of some early Christian sects found safety from religious persecution in Central Asia. The influence of Islam on the arts of Central Asia can be seen everywhere, in flowing arabesques, geometric and calligraphic ornament. Infinitely repeating patterns reflect the Islamic understanding that Allah’s presence is without end. Islam also held that only Allah could create life, so representations of people and animals are uncommon, especially in urban art. Nomadic textiles are more likely to include animal motifs, as they are made by women, who were less strongly aligned to Islam than men.
Nomadic traditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan
In ancient times, waves of Mongolian nomads invaded the steppes and deserts of Central Asia, and also populated northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Lakai Uzbek, Pashtun and Baluchi people of northern Afghanistan still follow a nomadic or semi-nomadic way of life. In northern Pakistan, the Baluchi, Brahvi, Pathan and Makrani people are also nomadic or semi-nomadic. Northern Afghanistan and Pakistan, and northern India, are considered part of Central Asia for historical reasons and because they share cultural traditions.
Nomadic traditions: embroidery
The embroidery of the nomadic groups of Central Asia is outstanding for its colour, diversity and exhuberance. The exquisite skill of the embroiderer was highly valued in nomadic society. Nomadic embroidery was traditionally worked by women, whose mothers taught them their skills and a repertoire of traditional motifs from childhood. The embroidery of each ethnic group is generally quite distinctive. Embroidered motifs decorate most everyday clothes, domestic textiles and animal trappings. Some of the finest and most beautiful work is prepared for weddings, not only to wear but for the girl’s dowry and as gifts.
Australians in Central Asia: archaeology in Uzbekistan
Since 1995 the University of Sydney and the Uzbek Academy of Sciences have been excavating in the Tash-k'irman oasis in western Uzbekistan. The joint team, funded by Australian volunteers, is excavating the city of Kazakl'i-yatkan, which was abandoned around the 4th century BCE. Its remote oasis location protected the area from the worst ravages of history, and its buildings and temples are being carefully exposed from under centuries of wind-blown sand. Such work adds to a local understanding of history, and develops Australia's connection with the area. A building has been fully renovated to serve as both a field research station and a local museum.